Rohmerathon: The Bakery Girl of Monceau, by Scott Nye
So here we are, at the start of one of the truly great film sagas ever crafted. After spending so long with Rohmer’s work in the 1950s, and seeing how often his work went unseen or unfinished, the audacity of his gambit with The Bakery Girl of Monceau is all the more impressive. It’s not that there would be mobs coming after him if he didn’t follow up on the promise established by the title card “Six Moral Tales,” and then almost a chapter mark “1” above the film’s title. But one wonders if he worried about getting away with it.
Adapting his own short stories – reprinted in English and included in The Criterion Collection’s box set collecting all six films – he certainly had the blueprint. In a conversation between Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder (who plays the lead in Bakery Girl, and went on to a considerable directing career) from 2006, Rohmer recalls how he hadn’t even thought of the common threads connecting these stories until he began turning them into films. Bakery Girl, though the first to be filmed, was one of the last to be written, and was the first to coalesce the common theme and story he found he had established – a man commits himself to a woman (even if she doesn’t know yet), but on the path towards cementing that bond becomes embroiled with another woman entirely. Moreover, the films are about the way men objectify women, even if their intentions are professed nobly.
There’s one absolutely vital aspect to establish about the Moral Tales, which is the meaning of the word “moral” itself. In a 2008 interview, Rohmer summarizes it thusly:
In French there is a word moraliste that I don’t think has any equivalent in English. It doesn’t really have much connection with the word ‘moral’; a moraliste is someone who is interested in finding out what goes on inside man. He’s concerned with states of mind and feelings… [The characters] try to justify everything in their behavior and that fits the word ‘moral’ in its narrowest sense. ‘Moral’, however, can also mean that these characters are people who like to bring their motives, the reasons for their actions, into the open; they try to analyse and are not people who act without thinking about what they are doing. What matters is what they think about their behavior, rather than their behavior itself. The Contes Moraux aren’t films of action, they aren’t films in which physical action takes place; they aren’t films in which there is anything very dramatic, for that matter. They are films in which a particular feeling is analysed and where even the characters themselves analyse their feelings in a very introspective way.
In this way, Bakery Girl is an incredibly dense 23-minute film. It starts off with a flurry of voiceover establishing the precise geographical area the film will explore, a bustling, student-heavy neighborhood in northwest Paris, really just a few blocks from the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe. Those who have visited Paris will still recognize the iconic metro station signs and the Monoprix supermarket near which Sylvie (Michèle Girardon), the object of our hero’s affection, can be seen walking at the start of the film.
Like most of Rohmer’s idealized women, Sylvie is blonde, well-dressed, archetypically beautiful, somewhat distant, and resistant to immediate advances. When the protagonist (he remains unnamed) finally finds an excuse to talk to her, she’s already seen him observing her for weeks, and delays the date he proposes. After he doesn’t naturally come across her in the days to come, as has come to be expected, he begins suspending meals to dedicate more time to wandering the neighborhood, and soon takes up meals in a local bakery. There he meets Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier), a young girl who quickly develops a liking to him. Jacqueline is the opposite of Sylvie – dark-haired, lower-class, unconventionally attractive, and more sexually expressive.
“What upset me is not that she liked me,” he says, in voiceover (the film was shot silently, and the character is voiced by Bertrand Tavernier, himself another future filmmaker), “but that she’d think there was any way I would like her.” That condescension gets to the root of his formative motivation in returning Jacqueline’s flirtation, but the key in all of Rohmer, and especially the Moral Tales, is the distance between what characters say about themselves and how they really feel. The very phrasing denotes that he automatically thinks her beneath him, that she’s not worthy of his affections the way Sylvie, his absent goddess, is. However, the way he speaks about her to us more reflects his own disgust for how he feels, rather than for her, and when he corners her for a date, his level of aggression is not merely a play. He takes liberties with her he wouldn’t dream of doing with Sylvie. He touches her face, strokes the front of her neck, lightly grabs at her. His forwardness seems unexpected to Jacqueline, who retreats, but later accepts his invitation by way of a fun code he suggests.
The irony – a driving force in Rohmer – comes into play when it turns out Sylvie lives just across the street, and has been watching him all this time as she recovered from an injury (doubly amusing if you recall the protagonist touting the bakery’s advantage as being slightly off the beaten path, and thus prevent the chance of running into her). If she saw what was going on with Jacqueline, she doesn’t let on. We’re lead to believe she hadn’t a clue; she’s too sweet to him to allow for it. But perhaps she has her sinister side, too, and knew just when to sweep in. Rohmer focuses so intensely on how his protagonist sees himself that there’s no space for how others feel. All we can get are suggestions and inferences; some the protagonist sees, most he remains oblivious to. His voiceover will carry on about one unimportant element or another – he fixates on his delight in entering a shop as though he hasn’t been there before – while ignoring the charming proficiency of how she wraps his daily cookie.
Girardon was already a success by the time of Bakery Girl – having appeared in America in Howard Hawks’ Hatari! the year before – and would go on to work with Robert Siodmak, Jean Becker, and Ettore Maria Fizzarotti, among others, before committing suicide at age 36. Soubrier hadn’t appeared in a film before, and never would again. Little seems to be known about her life. Like her character, she made an indelible impression, won quite a few hearts, then was gone from our lives forever without anyone quite knowing why. She could very well still be alive. There’s a certain ironic beauty to that mystery that Rohmer would not doubt appreciate.